If you’re a parent, uncle, aunt or older sibling or cousin, you may have been to one of those third-grade orchestra recitals where a tune vaguely resembling “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” is played five or six times over the screech of 17 scarcely tuned and off-rhythm violins. The sound is so grating that half the audience could pick up their steel folding chairs in the enervated grip of their clinched buttocks and carry them to their cars.
The same phenomenon, without the forbearance granted to children, occurs in bars when that patron who’s sure she sounds just like Mariah Carey takes the mic at karaoke night. Or when Attorney General John Ashcroft does his patriotic Engelbert Humperdinck impression, or his boss says “theirselves” on CNN and you’re in an airport in Calgary or London. You feel a little ashamed to be American, a little humility at being human; you want to blend into the woodwork rather than admit that you also once felt patriotic or once sang like a lounge lizard, or lied to your eight-year-old and told her she was the best one in her row that night.
Missoula native Jenny Siler’s new book, Shot, not only made me feel that way about being a writer, it’s awful enough that for a few horrifying instances, I felt regret over having learned how to read.
While the adage that writing is an uphill battle is true, to borrow a turn of phrase from my erstwhile VW mechanic, this book doesn’t have the zip to make it past a wet fart.
The premise, hastily imagined, concerns the widow of a biotech company executive as she unravels the conspiracy of her husband’s murder. It’s torturously facile and terribly unconvincing. I can’t figure out how Siler slipped this one under her editors’ noses, but I have a few wild-eyed theories I must share in order to restore my faith in the written word.
Bad book theory number one: Subliminal advertising. Siler has an endorsement contract with several multi-national corporations. This sounds far out. But no fewer than 19 brand-names appear in the first chapter, which is not quite 11 pages long, big print even, and this rate of corporate reference continues more or less unabated for the duration of the book. What gives?
Theory number one is no less plausible than the settings in Shot, but more likely is the possibility that the author is lamely substituting corporate names for an actual knowledge of place. For instance, describing a scene in Seattle, we read about a character observing “a panhandler working the door of the cineplex...tourists working...toward the Old Navy or the Hard Rock Cafe.”
Come on. This is a strip-malled suburb of Seattle, Issaquah or Renton, an ever-expanding place-less place that already occupies a vast, uniformly boring chunk of real estate from the Southgate Mall to the Pike Street Market on Puget Sound. Why bother? At the very least, Siler is lazy; setting her characters in the ubiquity of corporateland rather than taking the effort to familiarize herself and her readers with the intimate details of specific places and things.
Bad book theory number two: The author is writing for Hollywood. The extraordinarily silly dialogue, plot and characters in Shot might entice a studio somewhere to pay for the movie rights. The script wouldn’t really matter; a few choice words here and there crammed between car chases, gun fights and explosions would suffice. But even the most uncritical screenwriter might wind up with a Herculean editing chore on the order of the scribes who reworked Scarface for TV. There’s something on nearly every page you’d have to change or lose entirely.
Here’s a couple of random clunkers:
“This whole business was bad and getting worse. Darcy suddenly felt nauseated, and it wasn’t from the hot dogs.”
Or these words of wisdom to the grieving widow, her husband not long dead, from her brother: “It was a terrible thing...what happened to Carl. But you know, you can’t bring him back.”
Characters in Shot are flatter than a week-old growler. The worst example is a shoddy rip-off of a fictitious Earth First! clan whose actions are so far-fetched (their camp is south of Livingston, where the neighbors have overcome their suspicions and elevated them to the level of heroes, according to the alpha male of this hippie pack) and words so painfully contrived that the reader will want to send the author to the next decade’s worth of Rainbow Gatherings so she might have at least an inkling of where to collect fodder for such a scene.
Bad book theory number three: The author is not quite comfortable with the action/adventure genre. Siler hasn’t found a niche here, and seems to have tired of it with this bomb.
Happy ending/new beginning number one: On page 221, near the end of the book, there’s this fabulous, richly evocative sentence:
“It was after dark when Darcy and her sister rolled down off the Mogollon Plateau toward the sprawling lights of Phoenix, the menace of the American dream shining before them like some earth-bound Milky-Way in the flat-bottomed bowl of the Sonora Desert.” Now there’s a visceral, heartfelt description to savor. Siler may wish she’d have saved that one. She should have tossed Shot and built a whole new novel starting with those words.